As they brace for an expected exodus of baby boomers, some large employers here hope to transfer corporate knowledge to younger employees via methods ranging from internal leadership grooming to posting in-house communications on YouTube.
Diane Quincy, director of leadership and organization development at Avista Corp., says the Spokane-based energy company tries to anticipate the positions it will need to fill in the coming years.
"On a periodic basis, we look at potential retirement scenarios over the next five to 10 years," Quincy says. "We try to identify critical positions that will be harder to fill."
Quincy declines to disclose how many of the company's 1,700 employees are approaching retirement age, but says, "We know it's going to be a lot. The whole industry is facing a fair amount of turnover."
A report published last summer by The Conference Board says businesses face an upcoming unprecedented loss of experience and knowledge as more than 40 percent of the U.S. work force will be eligible to retire by 2010.
The New York-based business research organization puts out the closely watched U.S. Consumer Confidence Index and the Index of Leading Economic Indicators.
One of the biggest challenges that established businesses face in ensuring the future capability of their employees and managers is age diversity in their work force, which is greater now than it's ever been, says Roger Ingbretsen, a Spokane business consultant and former executive at Itron Corp. here.
Unfortunately, says Ingbretsen, many businesses so far are ignoring the problem.
He says only about 20 percent of businesses are preparing younger leaders to prevent gaps in company-specific knowledge as older workers retire.
"The other 80 percent are just trying to stay alive day by day," Ingbretsen says. "Everybody knows the problem is there, but most are too busy to do something about it."
A big chunk of today's work force consists of baby boomers, who were born between 1946 and 1964. The Conference Board describes them as being comfortable with formal education and with learning from printed text. They've adopted computers and other electronic technologies, but generally are far behind younger generations in the use of such technology, Ingbretsen adds.
The two generations that will replace boomers in the work force are known as Generation X, those born between 1965 and 1979, and Generation Y, also known as echo boomers and the millennial generation, who were born between 1980 and 1995.
Gen Xers, as they're known, like boomers are experienced in formal learning, but unlike boomers, adopted technology during their adolescence, says Ingbretsen. The Gen Y group was raised to "learn by doing," the Conference Board says. They have never known a world without the Internet, and they often prefer to communicate primarily through the Web, Ingbretsen says.
Ingbretsen says there won't be enough Gen X workers to fill all the vacancies expected to be left by retiring baby boomers, so some will have to be replaced by the more populous Gen Y group.
Because of the projected retirement of its baby boom workers, Inland Northwest Health Services (INHS) is running internal management and leadership classes for employees as part of its overall succession plan, says Phyllis Gabel, chief human resources officer at the Spokane-based nonprofit, which has about 1,050 employees.
INHS's annual leadership classes each have about 16 members, Gabel says. About two-thirds of them typically are managers with at least some experience, and the rest are employees in whom INHS sees management potential.
Some employees in the class are matched with mentors who help them achieve "stretch goals" beyond their normal jobs, such as developing a strategic plan.
"We want them to develop skill sets in leadership, innovation, and creativity," Gabel says. "Hopefully, they will continue networking afterward."
INHS also places a premium on retaining its top employees, she says.
"We ask our managers to identify their top performers," Gabel says. "Through focus groups, we ask those employees why they came here and what would keep them from leaving."
They say one of the top things that would make them stay with their employer is workplace flexibility, which would enable them to balance work and their personal lives, Gabel says.
Avista has launched a similar effort, called the Aspiring Leader Program, to create a field of candidates the energy company can consider when facing turnover in management due to retirements.
"We try to have programs in place to make sure people are ready," Quincy says.
The Aspiring Leader Program develops employees who have an aptitude and interest in leading people, she says. Participants receive outside reading assignments, a team project, an assigned mentor, and rotational experiences in different parts of the company.
Quincy says such preparedness goes beyond management and includes, for instance, entry-level power-line workers.
"We're committed to apprenticeship programs," she says. "If we expect a certain turnover in four years and it takes four years to complete an apprenticeship, we want them in the pipeline now."
Ingbretsen says keeping good employees to back up key positions is essential to succession planning.
"In succession planning, you have to identify who are your best people and what you need to do to groom them to take your position so you can do something else if you want," he says.
Such planning requires training, something many companies don't emphasize, Ingbretsen says, adding, "Training is the first thing to go in difficult economic times."
Meanwhile, people from different generations working side by side might not know how to communicate with each other, he says.
"Older workers have the answers, but they aren't sharing them," he says. "Gen Y workers are bright, and they think once they get a degree, they should have a good job, but many don't have a clue about what the job market is looking for."
Gabel says managers have to ensure that generational differences don't become barriers to the transfer of knowledge.
"Younger people might prefer to communicate through text messaging, while older people might prefer to speak face to face," she says. "Managers need to make sure any communications issues are resolved."
Avista also is paying more attention to generational differences in how employees prefer to communicate, Quincy says. The company is experimenting with technologies that younger workers are more apt to use for corporate information.
That effort is being lead by Dan Kolbet, a 29-year-old communications specialist, Quincy says.
Kolbet says it's his job is to make in-house information more accessible to employees who are used to "getting their news in modern and current ways, so they aren't disenfranchised by how a company talks to them."
One of the first tasks he performed was to make the company's electronic newsletter available via smart phones, which gave employees in the field quick access to the information.
He also added in-house video and image technology links to Avista's Web site, which takes advantage of the popular video and image hosting sites YouTube and Flickr.
Avista's YouTube page, for instance, includes 15 informational video clips, seven of which were produced in-house, he says.
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